The cardboard tray in Carly’s hand bobbled as she flinched and jerked. Righting one of the green and white cups threatening to take a tumble, she turned to the driver’s side window. Her rapidly beating heart slowed, and Carly grinned at the two faces peering in.
“Hurry up,” Rachel’s muffled voice said through the glass as Carly reached for the keys in the ignition.
At another impatient tap on the window, she opened the door of her cream-colored Acadia and placed the tray in Sophie’s delicate hands. She grabbed her purse and notepad then stepped out into the stifling August heat.
“About time you got here,” Sophie teased as she passed around the coffees then tossed the empty tray back inside Carly’s open door.
“Sorry. The drive-through was packed. I wasn’t even sure I’d make it here on time,” Carly replied. She looked down at her phone, relieved to see they still had a few minutes before the dreaded new teacher in-service meeting was scheduled to start. “We better get inside,” Carly added as she closed and locked her car door. Leading the way across the asphalt of the parking lot to the Oak County Independent School District administration building, she hoped she’d made the right choice this time.
On the concrete steps leading up to the doors of the three-story beige and tan brick structure, Rachel squealed and started dancing around waving her phone in the air, startling Sophie and Carly. “Oh, my gosh! Y’all aren’t going to believe this.”
Carly stopped to stare at her friend who was hopping from one foot to the other, her dark, red hair bouncing around her shoulders as she waved her phone around like a maniac. Thinking she’d probably found a new designer purse or some fabulous recipe, Carly chuckled as the much taller Sophie reached to swipe the elevated phone from Rachel’s hand.
“Let me see before you hit someone,” Sophie coaxed and looked down, the ends of her long blond hair falling over her shoulders, shielding the screen from the sun. As Sophie’s eyes widened and her face paled – as it did anytime she was in the presence of a hot, eligible man – and placed a trembling hand on her heart Carly’s interest was piqued. She stepped to her friend’s side to see what the fuss was all about. Leaning over, Carly shaded the screen from the bright sun and gasped. A little light-headed, she took in a shaky breath as she read the headline.
HOMETOWN HERO GAGE WILSON
ACCEPTS HEAD COACH POSITION
As Sophie continued to hold out the phone, Carly gazed at a picture of the recently retired five-time Super Bowl champ and quarterback for the Dallas Rattlers. Gage Wilson was from Oaktown in Texas, which was maybe one tiny reason why she, along with her college friends, Rachel and Sophie, accepted teaching positions here when they’d run into each other at the teacher fair in Houston last May while she was looking for a new job to get away from her ex-husband. However, never in her wildest dreams had she imagined Gage Wilson would return to live in his small hometown, much less coach at the very school where she would be teaching. Once she learned of his retirement, she’d assumed the gorgeous blond haired, blue-eyed Adonis who’d starred in so many of her fantasies would take a position in broadcasting or some other high-profile job and live the big city life. For a few seconds, they all stood there with eyes wide and mouths agape until Rachel squealed one more time.
“I don’t believe it,” Sophie breathed, shaking her head as she continued to stare at the screen.
“I wonder if he has a girlfriend,” Rachel queried as she took back her phone and scrolled through the rest of the article on the Oaktown Gazette Facebook page.
“Wow…” was all Carly could manage to croak out before she realized they were going to be late if they didn’t get inside. Moving forward and gesturing to the doors she hustled them up the steps.
“Come on. We can worry about Gage Wilson later.” With her heart racing, she pulled open the glass door to the three-story building then followed as Rachel and Sophie went inside.
Carly barely heard any of the administrators who went over the school district’s rules and procedures during the long boring hours of morning meetings. Images of Gage Wilson and his golden blond locks and gorgeous blue eyes kept flashing through her mind as she fiddled with her pen and pad of paper. Her insides quivered at the thought of meeting him. Carly, Rachel, and Sophie were huge Dallas Rattlers fans, and Gage Wilson was their all-time favorite player. They’d often voiced their fantasies to each other of what they would do if they ever met him.
Carly pulled the padded gray chair closer to the long rectangular table and tried to focus on the procedures for requesting a substitute displayed on the overhead screen. However, as she read through the last step, her mind again wandered back to Gage Wilson. Although she was excited he would be coaching at the same high school where she would be teaching math, she wasn’t going to entertain the thought of attempting to fulfill any of the wild fantasies she’d had of the gorgeous quarterback. After her recent divorce from her cheating ex-husband and the steady stream of beautiful women on the famous quarterback’s arm over the last few years, Carly knew he wasn’t the type of man she wanted. She probably didn’t have anything to worry about, though. He was more likely to be interested in Sophie with her long blond hair, crystal blue eyes, and tall, slender figure or Rachel and her curvy shape and bubbly personality. Her slight belly pouch and thighs that rubbed together combined with her unremarkable brown hair would never catch his eye.
As the lights came back on in the darkened room, Carly blinked her eyes and looked around as everyone began to get up. She realized she’d completely missed the announcement it was time for lunch. Quickly grabbing her purse and stuffing her notepad and pen inside, she hurried to catch up to Rachel and Sophie as they headed for the door.
While standing at the edge of the large group waiting for the elevators, Carly’s attention was drawn to a commotion behind the glass walls of an office further down the carpeted hallway. She thought she caught a glimpse of a tall blond head through the crowd of people in the office, but she couldn’t be sure. Her heart sped up at the thought that it might be Gage Wilson. As the elevator doors opened, Carly wondered how she was ever going to be able to teach at the same school if she was already having this kind of reaction at the mere thought of the huge football star being so close.
Carly crossed her legs and squeezed her thighs together, but it didn’t help. She was regretting the iced tea she’d had at the Mexican restaurant they’d gone to for lunch, but the salsa had been extremely spicy. She’d quickly downed two large glasses before she knew it, and now she was paying the price for it.
Knowing she wasn’t going to make it to the next break, Carly quietly got up and made her way to the doors at the back of the conference room and stepped out into the low light of the long hallway. Thankfully, the plush, beige carpet on the floor quieted her steps as she slipped by the open doors near the front. Rounding the corner, she looked down to adjust the neckline of her pink and yellow floral blouse which had slipped exposing her lacey bra underneath and promptly ran into a wall.
Only it wasn’t a wall.
Carly gasped as two large hands reached out as she started to fall backward, her strappy wedge sandals not helping her balance. A pair of steel blue eyes connected with hers as her heart flipped and her legs wobbled. She trembled as the large, calloused fingers of the gorgeous man standing so close, held her steady.
“Whoa there. Are you okay?” his deep velvety voice asked, causing her skin to tingle and goosebumps to break out along her arms.
In a daze and utter disbelief that Gage Wilson was standing so near with his strong hands wrapped around her upper arms, Carly could only manage a nod as her nipples tightened and a low throb pulsed between her legs. As he released his grip, she took a step back and shivered at the fiery path left behind as his fingertips trailed along the outside of her arms. Taking a deep breath only to inhale a potent scent of man and musky cologne, Carly gasped and squeaked out “I’m so sorry”. With her heart beating wildly, she stepped around the football star with his hair flopped down across his furrowed brow and beat a hurried path to the restroom, her whole body on fire from the unexpected encounter.
Hearing a low chuckle, she glanced back to see him stand with his feet slightly apart in the center of the hallway, his arms crossed over his broad muscular chest, and his perfect full lips tipped up in a lop-sided grin. With her cheeks flaming, she whipped back around and hurried through the ladies’ room door and into the first stall.
A few minutes later after berating herself for not at least trying to introduce herself to her football idol and crush, Carly tried to sneak back to her seat in the conference room but stopped short in her tracks when she heard Gage Wilson’s deep voice say, “Welcome back, Ms. Owens.”
Ducking her head and wondering how he knew her name, until she remembered the sticky tag plastered on her chest, Carly quickly slid into her chair, not daring to look toward the front where she knew he had to be standing. Ignoring the wide-eyed looks Rachel and Sophie were giving her from across the table, she picked up her pen and pretended to scribble a note on her yellow notepad as the new Oaktown High head football coach began going over the Texas University Interscholastic League rules of No Pass No Play for the coming year.
Twice she dared to look up at the gorgeous man at the wooden podium, only to have a wild fluttering begin in her stomach when his steel-blue eyes connected with hers. She’d quickly dropped her gaze, both times confused as to why he would be looking at her so intently. By the time he’d finished talking and had answered a few questions, Carly had almost convinced herself she was imagining the sparks flying between them across the room. Watching as the corded muscles in Gage Wilson’s arms flexed while he shook hands with a few of the administrators on his way out, Carly squelched the tingling vibrations shooting through her body and vowed to stay as far away from the new coach as she could. She had no desire to get involved with a man who had a history of stringing women along, no matter how good-looking he was.
Carly tossed her keys and purse onto the small wooden table by the front door and reached down to pet her shaggy black and white mutt, Max, on the head, thankful she’d beat her two roommates to the house. She wasn’t ready for the questions she knew they were going to bombard her with concerning Gage Wilson, nor did she know how to answer them.
By the time she’d changed into a pair of cut-off shorts and an old white T-shirt then went outside to the backyard to toss a ball to Max and making sure he’d done his business, Carly was sure she’d only imagined the sparks she’d felt every time Gage had looked at her. Plus, she would be an idiot to even think about entertaining the idea of getting involved with him if by some miracle he was interested in her. She’d only end up hurt.
Opening the sliding glass door at the back of the pale-yellow clapboard-sided rental house, she called for Max then followed behind the panting dog as he headed over to his water bowl in the kitchen. As she reached into the small pantry off one side of the outdated kitchen with its dingy white cabinets and butcher-block counters for Max’s dog food, she heard the slam of car doors in the driveway. She groaned at the thought of the interrogation coming her way. Quickly pouring some food into Max’s bowl and putting back the almost empty bag, she reached into the upper cabinet next to the sink and pulled out three wine glasses and the corkscrew lying on the counter hoping Sophie remembered to get her favorite wine. She was going to need it when they began their interrogation. She flinched and turned as she heard footsteps on the worn linoleum floor of the kitchen.
“Dish, girl,” Rachel demanded as she plopped two pizza boxes down on the bar between the kitchen and dining room.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Carly rebuffed, trying to bluff her way out of answering anything about her earlier encounter with the retired football star.
“Oh, you’re not fooling me. Yes, you do. What’s up with you and Gage Wilson?” Rachel asked as she pulled three plates out of another cabinet and placed them next to the pizza boxes emanating a mouthwatering spicy tomato smell then turned to Carly. As Rachel stood there with her eyebrows raised and her head tilted to the side, Sophie stepped up beside her.
“Yeah. Why would Gage Wilson call you out by name when you came back into the room? Something must have happened when you went to the restroom,” Sophie added, handing Carly her favorite pink Moscato.
Carly sighed as she uncorked the bottle and poured each of them a hefty measure of the rose-colored liquid then grabbed a plate and took a seat on one of the bar stools.
“Okay, okay. I know you’re not going to stop until I tell you. I might have run into him in the hall,” she mumbled as she took two slices of the pepperoni and Italian sausage pizza and slid them onto her plate. Her stomach rumbled as the smell hit her nostrils.
“What do you mean you ran into him?” Rachel asked as she plopped onto a stool on the other side of the bar.
“I looked down to fix my blouse as I turned the corner and slammed right into him. If he hadn’t grabbed me I would have fallen on my butt,” Carly answered, her heart hammering as she remembered the feel of his hands on her arms.
“What? He touched you?” Sophie gasped while Rachel coughed, choking on a bite of pizza.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t a big deal,” Carly answered, not wanting to expound on the visceral reaction her body had at his touch. “As for calling me by name, he probably saw my name tag and was poking a little fun at me. I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that. I saw how he kept looking at you. You might not have noticed, but Gage Wilson couldn’t keep his eyes off you,” Rachel teased, setting her glass down on the bar, her eyes dancing with amusement.
Carly looked down at her plate, not wanting to remember the sparks she’d felt in the air both times she’d looked up and met his beautiful eyes in the conference room. She downed a long drink of the bubbly wine then looked back at her two friends. She gulped uncomfortably at the smiles greeting her from across the bar.
“As I said, I doubt he meant anything by it, but it doesn’t matter anyway. If by some miracle he’s interested in me, I’m not going there. We all know Gage Wilson is a player, and after what Daniel did, I have no desire to get involved with someone like that again. One of you should go after him. He’d probably love all the attention,” Carly muttered as she picked up her pizza and took a big bite, remembering all the beautiful women seen on the star quarterback’s arm throughout his football career. She had no doubt he would go through all the single women on campus before the year was over. If that was something her two friends wanted, they were welcome to him.
“Not me,” Sophie said softly, picking up her empty plate after sliding off her bar stool and heading to the dishwasher. “He’s a little overwhelming and don’t forget he’s got a teenage son.”
“Well, I wouldn’t mind a little attention from him, and I certainly don’t care if he has a kid, but I think you’re wrong, Carly. He never looked at anyone else in the room the way he looked at you this afternoon.” Rachel grinned as she lifted her glass to drink the last of her wine.
A little later, after most of the pizza was gone and the conversation thankfully turned to the day’s in-service meetings, Carly helped put away the leftovers all the while a little bit thrilled at Rachel’s words. Just the thought Gage Wilson might have found her attractive gave her a boost of confidence after everything she’d been through in the last couple of years. Despite her attraction, she would have to keep reminding herself she wasn’t interested in the gorgeous man and stay away from him the best she could.
Carly scowled at the ugly prepaid phone in her hand. She missed her fancy smart phone she’d had before her move to Oaktown. There’d been no choice but to give it up when her ex had managed to figure out her new numbers twice after she switched them. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be able to trace the burner phone since she was planning to get a new number each time she ran out of the prepaid minutes. Sighing, she punched in the number for the matching prepaid phone her brother had gotten so she could call him when she needed to talk.
“Hey, Sis. How’s it going?” Mark asked as he answered after just one ring.
“Everything’s good here. Had our first day of orientation today. How are Cindy and the kids?” Carly questioned ignoring the pang of hurt that she hadn’t been able to see or hold her new niece, Emily, yet, and it had been way too long since she’d hugged her nephew, Jeremy. It had been too risky for her to go back home for her niece’s birth three months ago, but maybe everything would work out and she could go visit their new home in Denver during Christmas break.
“You’re not lying to me, are you? I hate that you chose to run away from that scumbag instead of letting me take care of the bastard,” Mark growled over the scratchy connection. Carly smiled at the protective sound of her brother’s voice. The former navy seal turned investment broker was a few years older but had always had her back. She could have let him beat the tar out of Daniel, but what good would it have done? Mark would have only gotten himself in trouble with the joke of a police department back home. It might have stopped Daniel for a while, but not for good. Mark would have kept going after him until one of them got hurt or worse.
“No, I’m not lying. Everything’s great.” Carly smiled remembering the tall, handsome new head coach of Oaktown High and his strong rough hands on her arms.
“Okay, I can hear it in your voice. I’m happy you’re out from under Daniel’s threats for now, but you know you can’t hide forever.” Mark let out a long sigh.
“I know, Mark. I just needed some breathing room until I can figure out a way to make him leave me alone. You know the police back home were no help, claiming they couldn’t do anything until he assaulted me. Then, when he did, they dismissed it and told me I was overreacting,” Carly replied, trying to quell the nausea building at the thought of what happened that day in the parking lot of her previous school.
“All right. I’ll let it go for now. Just promise you’ll let me know when you’re ready to do something about Daniel. I want to see you able to move on and find someone new. You know he’s going to track you down eventually. You’ll be much better off if you deal with him before he does.” Mark sighed, again. Carly’s heart swelled at the thought of how much her brother loved her. She hated the fact she’d put him and her parent’s in the situation they were all in because of the bad choice she’d made marrying Daniel. She was determined to find a way to deal with him once and for all, but right now, like she’d told Mark, she just wanted some time to breath and get her head on straight.
“Thank you. I promise. Now let me talk to Jeremy. I can hear him next to you,” Carly replied then giggled at the sound of her nephew pleading for his father to hand over the phone, so he could talk to his Aunt “Carwee”.
Her heart swelled once again as she listened to Jeremy regale her with tales of the new friends he already made at school. The first grader was full of energy and she missed him something fierce, but she was so glad her brother had decided to take the job at the investment firm in Denver and get his family out of their small hometown and away from her ex. She prayed she could come up with a way to deal with Daniel so that her parents wouldn’t have to eventually give up their home and move, too.